GP2X

Everyone has heard of the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, but less will have heard of the GP2X, the latest portable console to come from Gamepark Holdings (GPH) in Korea. Unlike its mainstream competitors the GP2X is aimed at giving the gamer far more freedom than they could ever expect from the likes of Nintendo and Sony. The community-friendly GP2X uses a Linux-based operating system, providing a framework for you to do activities typically associated with desktop computing, such as playing emulators, view photos, listen to music and watch videos. It currently has very few commercial games but the home-brew scene is going strong.

Technical details

In the simple but chic packaging you’ll find the console, USB cable for use with your PC, info page, user guide CD, and a second disk packed with useful software. Batteries and external power supply are not included, probably to keep the retail price of £125 down. A power supply and optional TV output cable can be purchased from the official GP2X site. With the TV-out option you get a resolution of 720*480, with PAL and NTSC support

The GP2X features a high quality 320*240 backlit screen and is powered by two 200MHz CPUs, features 64MB of RAM, custom graphics hardware and decoding chips. It has 64MB of on-board NAND memory and a SD card slot for you to swap around gigabytes worth of content at your will. This is all very impressive, however unlike most modern handheld gaming devices, cameras and phones, the GP2X is powered by two AA batteries. Therefore it’s highly recommended you buy some rechargeables to save on long-term costs. As you can imagine, using AAs has its pros and cons. When you’re on the go you can always feel safe in the knowledge you can pop into a shop and pick up some AA batteries, or just put some spare rechargables in, and charge the whole lot up when you return home. With a standard handheld gaming/phone/camera, Lithion battery replacements are typically quite expensive and hard to find, but are easier to charge as you don’t need to take the battery out. These days you can buy a cheap charger and batteries for just over £10, and I opted for 2500mAh NiMH Energizer rechargeables, which are some of the best you can buy in the UK. Officially you can expect 4 hours of video playback, 5 hours of gaming, or 6 hours of music. I found my batteries lasted a bit less than that so you really do need spare batteries and to keep a look out for the red battery light so you don’t lose your saves. Note that these batteries do not come pre-charged. Some people won’t like the idea of AA batteries, and I agree it’s not ideal, but it won’t stop you from enjoying the GP2X.

Power is nothing without control

The main menu, as pictured on the left, is clearly laid out with the various options. Each will take you to the root of your SD card storage and so selecting video will still show all file types, but will only play video. It would be nice for it to filter out files which it cannot play in that section, as it could be hard for those unfamiliar with your folder structure to navigate. Generally the menu is easy to use however white text on a yellow background is a bad idea. However it is possible to change the menu skin with a bit of research and you really wouldn’t know it was Linux running it (don’t worry there’s no pre-GUI command line to use).

The GP2X comes in black and the design is very modern and slick. It looks very nice and is very small, at least 50% smaller than I expected and the screen takes up a high percentage of the front surface. There’s a small bulge at the lower back where the battery compartment goes, but it’s more subtle than expected. Without batteries the GP2X weights 161 grams.

For controls you have 4 main A-B-X-Y buttons, start, select, two shoulder buttons and a well-designed 8-way digital joystick, which despite being raised, is low enough to retain good movement whilst not sticking out far enough to get snagged on anything during transport.

The sockets – headphones, EXT and DC power – are covered by little rubbery tabs connected by a thin sliver of rubber to the unit. It’s good to have these sockets covered but they don’t fix back into place too firmly and you have to be careful not to pull them off completely by mistake.

Somewhere on an Amiga.. a long time ago

Retro gaming is the future – I’ve played it. With such extensive emulator support the GP2X effectively has thousands of games waiting for you to play. Here’s a (very) long list of systems the GP2X can emulate:

Arcade systems (via MAME), Amstrad, Apple Macintosh 68K, Atari 2600, Atari 800, Atari Jaguar, Atari ST, Atari Lynx, Colecovision, Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Sega Game Gear, Mattel Intellivision, MESS, Neo-Geo, Neo-Geo CD, Neo-Geo Pocket Color, NES, Odyssey 2, PC Engine, Sony PlayStation (though not really playable), Sega Master System, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, SNES, TI-99/4A, MS-DOS, x86 and ZX Spectrum.

For most people that’s a good three decades worth of things to try. Some systems are more compatible and widely supported than others and the community is continually improving the software. One of the benefits of emulators is that you can save your game at any time using ‘save state’. Brilliant.

Not just for nostalgic purposes

There’s also a promise that commercial GP2X material will be released, though that side of things is moving slowly. Vektar, a kind of Asteroids and Geometry Wars style game is the first to be released, and is available for £19.99. Another upcoming game is Payback, of which there is a rolling demo showcasing the top-down 3D graphics of this Grand Theft Auto clone. Some games, including Quake and Duke Nukem, have also been ported to the GP2X but you will need some files from the original PC games for them to load. You may find that things don’t always work in an obvious way like they do on the PSP and DS; you may have to do a bit of research first, but that’s to be expected from user-created content.

One of the big selling points of the GP2X is the free SDK (Software Development Kit), which enables budding developers to create their own games. Not since the days of the Amiga has a system been so easy to develop for. If you’re interested in getting into the development business a portfolio of work is essential, and taking your GP2X along to the interview to showcase your work sounds like a terrific idea. The ‘open system’ approach is in stark contrast to the attitudes of Sony and Nintendo, who are forcing people into buying their own games instead of encouraging amateur development. In my opinion there should be room for both, and in the long term it’s something you will see more of.

At the movies

The potential for using this gadget on the move is very promising. Like many of you, I have a long commute to and from work each day – being able to download video content from the web and watch it on the train is rather appealing. I’ve got a load of DVDs at home that I’ve not had the chance to watch, and these days it’s easy to rip them to a DivX file on your computer.

One of the most interesting features is the GP2X’s ability to play movies in DivX, Xvid and MPEG formats at 30 frames per second. To put files on the machine simply copy them to your SD card using a cheap USB 2.0 card-reader plugged into your PC. Better still is the GP2X’s ability to automatically resize the movie to fit the screen. The lack of format and size limitations is great as you don’t have to worry about recoding the movies before transfer. If you’d like to put some You Tube movies on your GP2X refer to this thread.

The video quality is very impressive and if you stop watching a video it will be ready to continue from where you left it. I found that DivX worked perfectly whereas Xvid has slightly out of sync audio but this might not always be the case. With Gamepark releasing new firmware you can expect this not to be a long-term problem. Video playback is a killer feature of the GP2X and its sheer flexibility in comparison to the PSP is a huge bonus.

Sounds good to me

To test out the audio functionality I ripped Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium from the CD to the SD card in MP3 format. The GP2X has built-in speakers to the left and right of the screen, the sound quality was good and the volume control allows you to get it pretty loud for such a small device. There’s a headphone socket on the top of the player that I expect most will use when out of the house.

As you’ll only get less than 6 hours music playback I expect most people will keep their own MP3 player for regular use. But if you wanted to show your friend a new song or listen to something occasionally, the GP2X would come in handy. It also supports the OGG format and I can’t fault the music playback other than the battery life so it’s a great feature to have.

Overall

With so many open features the GP2X landscape will be constantly evolving, and with the power of the Internet it already has a big community following. There’s also at least one file archive. As this is such a community-focused system you really need to keep an eye on what’s going on to get the most out of it. GP32X.com is a very substantial fan site and with a very helpful forum.

At only £124.99 you’re getting a lot for your money; along with the ability to play games, video, music, you also get a basic eBook reader (text-only) and an image viewer capable of opening GIF, JPEG and PNG files. SD cards are a superb way of moving your data about at speed and the cost of them are coming down to around £15 for a 1GB card, enough to store a hundred games plus a movie. Unfortunately there is no WiFi capability but that is asking a bit much considering all of the other features. Hopefully the GP3X will come with multiplayer WiFi support!

Overall the unit is nice looking, fairly lightweight, slim and apart from the limited battery life – a common problem facing the whole electronics industry – there’s nothing to fault. UK readers can buy the system from GP2X.co.uk

A multi-talented portable gaming and movie system

9.4/10

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